Realignment mess bad for basketball

On Sunday afternoon, Florida president Dr. Bernie Machen brought good news to everyone that fears another round of rampant conference realignment. The statement went as follows:

“The SEC Presidents and Chancellors met today and reaffirmed our satisfaction with the present 12 institutional alignment. We recognize, however, that future conditions may make it advantageous to expand the number of institutions in the league. We discussed criteria and process associated with expansion. No action was taken with respect to any institution including Texas A&M.”

In other words, the SEC decided not to extend a formal invitation to the Texas A&M Aggies. Not yet at least. After days of rumors and reports indicating the Aggies' move to the SEC was basically a done deal, Texas A&M might need to saunter back to its Big 12 frenemies with its tail tucked firmly between its legs.

We say "might" because this thing appears to still have legs. Many have interpreted the conference's Sunday statement, with its clear understanding that future expansion is still very much a possibility, as simply a way for the SEC to clear up some legal hurdles and make sure it is clear that A&M is pursuing the SEC and not the other way around. Or maybe it's simply biding time until the league chooses a 14th member.

Whatever the case, the SEC's statement at least grants us a reprieve -- even if it's only temporary. If A&M stays put, the SEC doesn't need to add a 14th team. If A&M does end up leaving and the 14th SEC member is a current Big 12 school, there is no telling what could become of the Big 12. Would it poach other teams? Would it find some of its members tempted to join former counterparts in the Big Ten, Pac-12, or even the Big East? And what would become of college basketball in the interim?

If you're a hoops fan -- or you care at least as much about basketball as you do about football -- that's the key question. The first wave of conference realignment showed just how little basketball matters in these decisions; the main driver is football, particularly the money TV networks (whether owned by the conferences themselves or not) are willing to pay to televise those football games in major markets around the country.

That would be fine if realignment was a net benefit for college hoops in general, but it's nearly impossible to make that argument. The best hope is that realignment has only benign effects on the basketball landscape. More likely, as we saw when Kansas was nearly left behind 14 months ago, is that the football-oriented moves create strange conglomerations of conferences blind to hoops rivalries or traditions.

The Kansas example is a useful one. Say A&M ends up jumping to the SEC after all. The Big 12 would be thrown into chaos. some of the conference's members would be scrambling for a place elsewhere, even if they hold no obvious benefit to any of the conferences looking to add teams. In the ensuing mess, it would hardly be surprising if KU thought its best possible fit was, yes, the Big East. (Great hoops, mediocre football -- you get the idea.) It works in theory, but what about practice? The Jayhawks' traditional rivalries would be lost. The travel logistics would be silly. It would make absolutely no sense, other than to ensure the athletic department's healthy future. Is that really how we want to structure our college sports?

What's worse, all this doesn't begin to describe the widespread potential damage conference realignment could wreak on college hoops as a whole. In the year since the last realignment fracas, we've seen major college conferences do more to solidify their inherent competitive advantages than ever before. Leagues and teams are starting lucrative TV networks. The Big Ten and SEC are pushing for cost-of-attendance scholarships. And why not? They can afford it. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has even hinted that the nuclear option -- breaking free of the NCAA and forming a power-conference superleague -- is a possible route forward. Is it any surprise, then, that conferences are seeking to burnish their power through consolidation?

It's hard to blame them; this is what competitive free market entities do. But college hoops -- especially the 200-plus mid-majors that get to compete for a spot in the world's most exciting tournament every year -- would be hurt most. Conference consolidation stands to put yet more money in the hands of major conferences and therefore create an even wider competition gap for mid-major teams that don't have gigantic TV contracts to build multi-million dollar facilities. The tables are already stacked against them. If conference realignment meets its logical end -- fewer conferences, more teams, more money for everyone involved -- that equity gap would become devastatingly wide.

That's why the SEC's sort-of decision is a relief for many of us. For now, at least, it keeps the status quo intact. Compared to the alternative -- a constantly changing landscape where conferences either grow or die, with basketball programs included as afterthoughts in cynical profit-oriented moves -- the current college hoops status quo seems like the best possible option.

Really, we just like college basketball just the way it is. Realignment threatens that. Specifically, it threatens the most romantic aspects of the sport we love: the underdogs, the mid-majors, those small, 4,000-enrollment schools from tiny conferences that prove that for all the money and private jets and booster donations and gleaming facilities, five men on a basketball court are still capable of anything.

The past two NCAA tournaments taught us those lessons. It'd be a shame if Texas A&M's (understandable) desire for new digs -- and the inevitable revenue moves that followed -- propelled us down a path toward forgetting them.